Spreading The Disease: An Oral History Of Thrash Metal

With an emphasis on precision and speed, thrash metal emerged in the early 80s to become the dominant form of heavy metal throughout the decade.

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Photo: Pete Cronin/Redferns

With an emphasis on precision and speed, thrash metal emerged in the early 80s to become the dominant form of heavy metal throughout the decade. US groups Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax became known as the Big Four of thrash metal, while bands such as Kreator and Sepultura emerged from Germany and Brazil, respectively, to help thrash gain a global foothold.

In this oral history, thrash’s innovators give their side of the story, from its influences and beginnings through to a global resurgence in the 2010s…

Listen to the best thrash metal on Spotify.

Believe it or not, the beginnings of American thrash metal were found in the unlikely environment of Newcastle, England, where an unruly metal trio called Venom lurked…

Conrad “Cronos” Lant (bassist/vocalist, Venom): I came out of the punk scene as well as the usual rock stuff like the Stones and Deep Purple; other bands used to take the piss out of us and say we couldn’t play, because our songs were so fast. “Angel Dust” was our attempt at a Motörhead or UFO song, and from there it just got faster and faster and faster, and we thought we’d take it to the next level. Once it was apparent that we could handle that speed without breaking our necks, we thought, “Why the f__k not? Let’s get this as fast as possible.” People’s jaws would drop at the speed of it.

Jeff “Mantas” Dunn (guitarist, Venom): I think the metal-buying public was ready for something different, so we went out there and thrashed it up and the audiences loved it. It’s probably fair to say that the first thrash metal song we did was “Witching Hour.” How did we do it? Well, like Paul Stanley said, when someone asked him how they came up with the KISS make-up, he said, “If someone falls into the Mississippi and comes up with 16 gold nuggets, you’re not going to call them a f__kin’ genius.” What we did was just what we did, it wasn’t contrived.

Tom Araya (bassist/vocalist, Slayer): Without Venom, there’s a good chance there wouldn’t have been a Slayer. Their Welcome To Hell [1981] and Black Metal [1982] albums were a big influence on our guitarists Kerry King and [the late] Jeff Hanneman.

Charlie Benante (drummer, Anthrax): My wanting to play fast came from certain bands, especially those from the UK, such as Motörhead – and another one that I loved from back then, Venom.

Once thrash metal found a foothold in California, its spiritual home became San Francisco’s Bay Area. The first and biggest Bay Area thrash band was Metallica, though they were originally from Los Angeles. Guitarist Dave Mustaine was an early member. Another important musician in Metallica’s development was Cliff Burton, a classically trained bassist who died tragically young in a coach crash in 1986.

Metallica - For Whom the Bell Tolls (Live) [Cliff 'Em All]

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James Hetfield (guitarist/vocalist, Metallica): There was always competition in the old days when it came to speed, and challenging each other to step up. All the fast rhythm stuff is pretty fun: you put so much emotion into that. My speed – as far as downpicking, and rhythms – I’m pretty comfortable with it. I don’t see how it could get much faster.

Dave Mustaine (guitarist/vocalist, Megadeth): I wanted to have fun and be like AC/DC, but my guitar playing didn’t dictate that – I had a much more aggressive playing style. I had to really let it rip from the part inside of me that was harboring all the pain and the emotion. Unfortunately, I had so many emotional things happening to me when I was growing up, that booze was the only way I had to escape from them.

Kerry King (guitarist, Slayer): I used to go and see Dave Mustaine play with Metallica. Me and Jeff Hanneman would be blown away that he’d be ripping through all these solos and looking around, not paying any attention to what he was playing.

James Hetfield: Cliff Burton is still alive in our hearts and our fans’ hearts, there’s no doubt about that. There are always thoughts, when we’re doing things, in the back of our minds: “Wow! Cliff would just love this,” you know? He loved to jam and just go crazy with sounds. He loved soundscapes, but in a heavy way: he was a big fan of Pink Floyd and some of the really deep but heavy stuff. He was a unique kind of guy.

Mustaine’s drunken antics caused the band to fire him in early ’83. He went on to form Megadeth, while his place in Metallica was filled by Kirk Hammett of Exodus, the next Bay Area thrashers out of the blocks.

Dave Mustaine: I know they had to do what they had to do: in fact, because of how much we were drinking, they may have given me a second chance. They may have given me 20 chances, but sometimes you don’t see the writing on the wall until you come to a screeching halt.

Kerry King: I loved Exodus. Their first record [Bonded By Blood, 1985] is great.

Tom Araya: Exodus blew us away: we did three shows with them in San Francisco, and we came home with a competitive edge, thinking, “That’s what we gotta do to make f__kin’ great music!”

Kirk Hammett (guitarist, Metallica): The stuff I used to listen to back when I was a teenager was old UFO stuff, Ulrich Roth solo albums, old Scorpions, the first three or four Van Halen albums, and more abstract stuff like Robin Trower and Pat Travers. A lot of Ritchie Blackmore, too.

Anthrax - Madhouse

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A fertile thrash metal movement also took root in Los Angeles, where Slayer formed in 1982. At some point in 1983 or ’84 the term “thrash metal” was coined. By whom? Answers on a postcard, please…

Charlie Benante: I believe the first time I became aware of the term “thrash metal” was from a magazine – it could have been Kerrang!. It was right around the time of our Spreading The Disease record [1985]. Besides Anthrax, there were four other bands that were doing this type of music – Metallica, Slayer, Exodus from San Francisco, and I think that Megadeth had just put out their first album.

Eric Peterson (guitarist, Testament): We used the term “speed metal” before “thrash metal.” A lot of us did a lot of speed. We’d go out on Friday night and come home on Sunday morning! We were up all night, tripping on dark things.

Brian Slagel (founder, Metal Blade label): I’ve been wondering who thought of that term. It might have been someone up in San Francisco because they embraced the scene there.

Jim Martin (guitarist, Faith No More) It seems fat guys wearing sport coats and jeans developed this term behind closed doors at a marketing meeting. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken the term aloud.

Thrash was soon dominated by a “Big Four,” with Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth joined by New Yorkers Anthrax. An overseas scene also emerged, particularly in Germany and Brazil.

Mille Petrozza (guitarist/vocalist, Kreator): We were just young kids full of enthusiasm, who wanted to sound like the bands they listened to. We were tape-traders: we would listen to all kinds of stuff from the metal underground – Hirax, Sepultura, Possessed, Death. We just wanted to be part of that scene, and when I listen to our album Pleasure To Kill now, that’s what I hear.

Andreas Kisser (guitarist, Sepultura): Our label, Roadrunner, took a huge gamble by signing a Brazilian band like us. There’s a lot of Slayer, Metallica, Kreator, and Vio-lence in the guitar playing from back then – all that good stuff – but with the experience that we got on the road, we really grew up as musicians and we got interested in other kinds of playing.

Mille Petrozza: English people used to call us “hate metal”! It comes from the Flag Of Hate EP, which we released between our albums Endless Pain and Pleasure To Kill – but also from the way I sang at the time, which was really high-end screaming. It fit the music, though.

As the thrash scene attracted international attention, the primary bands competed fiercely for dominance, exchanging public insults along the way.

Lars Ulrich (drummer, Metallica): There’s so much about rock’n’roll and heavy metal that is about live-fast-die-young and being outrageous, but you come to a place where you’re comfortable with what you have, and in that situation, feuds and so on become irrelevant. Of course, they make good copy, and we can all raise our hands and admit to being guilty of talking horseshit.

Kerry King: There was competition, but there was also a lot of admiration too, at least when it came to me and my band. We always looked forward to getting a new Metallica record before it came out, to see what was going on, and I know they felt the same way about us.

Kirk Hammett: I’m a man of integrity and sincerity, and I believe in karma, and I don’t let anything like that bother me. There are more important things in life, and I don’t let myself get all riled up about who said whatever. I have a pretty good concept of myself, so I never let any of that bother me at all. You’ll never see me replying to any bullshit, I’ve never bothered. I don’t have time for any of that f__kin’ crap.

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The creative peak of the first thrash metal wave came in 1986 and ’87, when four phenomenal albums were released – Metallica’s Master Of Puppets, Megadeth’s Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?, Among The Living by Anthrax and Slayer’s Reign In Blood. The last of these caused its creators some problems because of the controversial nature of its opening track, “Angel Of Death.”

Jeff Hanneman (guitarist and composer of “Angel Of Death,” Slayer): I had no clue. At the time when I wrote that song, it was before we had tour buses, so we used to drive to gigs. There was nothing to do in the car except read, so when I saw a couple of books about [infamous Nazi scientist] Josef Mengele, I bought them and thought he would be an evil subject to write about. Then, when people started calling me a Nazi, I said, “Oh f__k off! There’s a guy from Chile and another one from Cuba in this band, how can I be a Nazi?”

Kerry King: You have to remember that me and Jeff were still only 22. That’s very young to be on your third album, let alone the one you’re measured by for the rest of your career. It was an awesome time. We were all so young. I really dig that album. We’re ending the show with “Raining Blood” now, and it doesn’t matter where in the set we play it, the crowd just f__kin’ lights up. To this day, it’s such a rush to play it with everybody just tearing each other to shreds.

Tornado Of Souls

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Two key albums – Megadeth’s Rust In Peace and Slayer’s Seasons In The Abyss, both released in late 1990 – and a classic tour called Clash Of The Titans, which ran from late ’90 to the summer of ’91, marked the commercial peak of thrash metal.

Kerry King: The rise of thrash metal was definitely an oddity – something that nobody could have foreseen or planned. It was like everybody was building up to a big pinnacle, and exploding with the sound that the genre was gonna be like for the next 25 years. We didn’t know it, but that’s how it worked out.

Dave Mustaine: Rust In Peace is definitely a high point: we knew we were on to something. I remember when we mixed it with [renowned studio guru] Max Norman, we realized that we were a serious band.

Scott Ian (guitarist, Anthrax): On the Clash Of The Titans tour we had to be the best we could be, or be completely crushed by Slayer every night. I had my own little mosh pit for one person behind their drum kit on that tour. They have the craziest fans, and they’re the best at what they do, so we had to be as hard as we could be. That tour was funny because it was a revolving bill, and Megadeth were adamant that they would never go on after Slayer. However the bill ran – it was either Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax; or Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer – they never went on after Slayer. We just said right off the bat, “We’ll play whenever, f__k it.”

Dave Mustaine: I look back with great fondness at that tour, even though there were some differences of opinion between the bands, and some conflicts of personality. I look back on it as a tremendous success.

Metallica: Enter Sandman (Official Music Video)

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Metallica released a massive-selling non-thrash record, Metallica (aka “The Black Album”) in August 1991, and the grunge band Nirvana released Nevermind a month later. At a stroke, thrash metal was now yesterday’s music, and a few key albums aside, the genre fell into obscurity for the best part of a decade.

Charlie Benante: I think the whole thrash thing peaked around 1989 to 1990. Once Metallica released their “Black Album” and it made inroads into the mainstream, I think that was the peak. After that, grunge came on the scene and alternative music happened, and that was it.

Mille Petrozza (Kreator): In the 90s, the whole of the metal genre was in an identity crisis, and I’d be lying if I said that we weren’t, too. But it was important for us to make some experimental albums, because we had to find our way. And in any case, on those albums, our thrash metal roots never completely went away. It’s hard to keep a balance sometimes, you know – to go too deep into the experimental thing and forget about your roots and what you really stand for.

Andreas Kisser: We got away from all the Kreator and Destruction stuff. We had a groove, and a lot of people liked it. It was just a consequence of everything we saw on the road. We were a more mature band, so we played less aggressively.

Kerry King: I was really jaded for a while back in the late 90s. I couldn’t understand why Limp Bizkit was big. It affected me – I didn’t want to play music. I thought, if this is the way that music’s going, then f__k this, I hate it. That’s why Jeff Hanneman wrote so much of our 1998 album Diabolus In Musica, which is too funky for me.

Dave Mustaine: I didn’t want to be in the band after [the 1999 album] Risk came out. The music scene at the time was all about alternative music, and instead of just sticking to our guns and just being the mighty Megadeth like AC/DC or Iron Maiden, everybody was pressuring me and the other three guys, and there’s only so much I can take.

At the Thrash Of The Titans show in August 2001 – held in San Francisco as a benefit for Testament singer Chuck Billy, who was then recovering from cancer treatment – a whole host of thrash metal bands reconvened. This sparked off a resurgence in American thrash, which was followed in the new millennium by a wave of young bands from Europe and the UK.

Dennis Pepa (former bassist of Death Angel): When we were asked to play at the show in 2001 for Chuck Billy, we said, “F__k, let’s do it!” If it hadn’t been for that show we would never have got back together. If it wasn’t for that, nothing would have kicked us in the ass.

Mille Petrozza: The new bands are obviously influenced by what we’ve done in the past, but it’s all great! If they’re discovering what we did 20 years ago, then it’s like a manifesto for what this whole scene is about. Metal should be about saying, “F__k you and everybody else – I’m going to do my thing!”

Charlie Benante: Thrash was something that happened and it influenced a lot of music that would come after it, and it was a great moment in time. And now there’s a resurgence, so there you go.

Battery (Remastered)

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The resurgence of thrash metal was confirmed in 2010 and 2011, when a series of arena shows featuring Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax under the Big Four banner took place in Europe and the US. Thrashers of the world unite – it’s like 1986 all over again!

Kirk Hammett: In 1988, this show never would have happened, for whatever reason. In 1998 no one gave a f__k, and in 2010 it was big news. God bless it! It was initially James [Hetfield]’s idea. He just wondered one day how great it would be if the Big Four toured together, and we all scratched our heads in agreement and were all like, “Yeah, that would be very, very cool.” It was hilarious because it could easily have been 1985: we have a lot less hair but a lot more experience!

Scott Ian: We had heard the rumors just like everyone else – they’d been going around for a while. It was funny: people were literally approaching me in the street, saying, “Hey, is it true? Is it true? Are you guys gonna do this Big Four tour?” When we got the official offer to be a part of it with the other three bands, it was really exciting. There were calls and emails going back and forth between us, like, “Holy s__t! Wow – can you believe it?”

Lars Ulrich: Life is too short for any of this stuff to not be possible. I don’t want Metallica to turn into a f_kin’ nostalgia act, but at the same time we love our past, we respect our past, we’re appreciative of our past. It’s a lot of fun to go down memory lane and to relive some of those moments from the past, with a newfound outlook on life and a newfound appreciation for relationships.

Kerry King: Thrash seems to be in good shape. I don’t think it’ll self-destruct like it did in the early 90s.

James Hetfield: We’re proud to have influenced quite a few people in terms of sound and playing. It’s just the passing-on of a torch. We were inspired by Diamond Head, Motörhead, Thin Lizzy, and all these other bands, and we’ve digested it and spit it out our way, and it gets passed on – so it’s up to them to take it to another level too!

Listen to the best thrash metal on Spotify.

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